American Animals is a film that plays with the truth. That’s just because of the nature of its story, as those involved in the heist of two priceless books from Transylvania University remembered specific details of the crime differently.
But, with “American Animals,” writer and director Bart Layton leans into this uncertainty. At times he even has the actual Warren Lipka and Spencer Reinhard interact with Evan Peters and Barry Keoghan, who play them in the film.
I recently had the chance to speak to Layton, who broke down just how truthful “American Animals” actually is, and admitted that he could never quite get a definitive account of events out of Lipka, Reinhard or their accomplices Chas Allen and Eric Borsuk.
“They would come back with different descriptions of the same incident. The same conversation remembered happening in different places. That to me was fascinating. Because not only do you have these unreliable narrators. But memory is unreliable. You invite the audience into the story, and we talk about the way that stories get fictionalized.”
Although Layton wrote the film from the notes and recollections of those involved, he insisted that the foursome didn’t have any creative control over the script, and never even saw it.
“Ultimately they wrote these letters. When I was writing, if I got stuck and wondered what happened in a certain place I’d go to them and ask, ‘Can you just elaborate a little bit on this? I don’t understand what happened there? I need to understand how you got to this’.”
“Then I would get these brilliantly written letters that would help to fill in the gaps. When they got out of prison I shot the interviews with them. That changed the script again, quite a lot. Then the next thing they really knew about it was the finished film.”
For Layton, the chance to blend a highly stylized movie version of the heist with a documentary style break down of what actually unfolded was one of the main appeals to “American Animals.”
“The idea and the process was that the form of the film really reflects their journey. As they get deeper into the fantasy of it all and they get lost in the movie and they get more and more detached from the real world the movie does that as well.”
“We get closer to the kind of language of the heist films that they were inspired by. It gets more ‘Ocean’s 11’ and less kind of documentary, and less real.”
“At the point in which they cross this line that they should never have crossed then we are thrust into this whole different tone and the look and feel of the film is different.”
Ultimately, though, Layton didn’t really need to take too much artistic license with “American Animals” because it “was such a f**king insane story.”
“Much of what you see is what actually happened. Obviously I am writing it. But I am writing it on their accounts, and their testimony, and the reality of what happened as close as I can be.”
“I wasn’t there. And no-one recorded it. But it was really important to try and stick as close to the reality of what happened.”
You can see just how crazy “American Animals” is now, as the film has just been released into theaters.